What is a Ryu?

by Wayne Muromoto

[Editor’s note: After I first read this article in issue #8 of Furyu The Budo Journal, I immediately e-mailed Wayne with a request to post it at Koryu.com, as it so succinctly reflects our understanding of this somewhat misunderstood subject. He replied that “when I was writing the stuff, I kept getting Meik’s voice in the back of my head, because I had interviewed him years ago, and we got on the subject of defining koryu and ryu. So if he liked it, maybe it was because I was subconsciously reworking his own thoughts while I wrote the article.” Meik always says that the degree of any person’s intelligence is the extent to which he/she agrees with him, so Wayne must be one pretty smart dude!]

Style was central to the samurai way of life–style in clothes, armor, weapons, skill-at-arms and behavior on the battlefield; in that they did not much differ from their chivalric contemporaries in France and England. In their cultural outlook, however, they differed very greatly. The Japanese were a literate people and the literary culture of the samurai was highly developed. The greatest nobles of Japan, those who resided at the court of the powerless god-emperor, did not seek military reputation at all, but strove for literary glory. Their example set the tone for the samurai, who commonly wanted to be known both as swordsmen and poets… The greatest warriors of feudal Japan were therefore also men of the mind, the spirit and the cultivated senses.
–John Keegan, A History of Warfare

What is a ryu?

The easy answer is that it roughly translates to “style,” or “school,” as in a certain way of doing something.

–But you didn’t expect Furyu: the Budo Journal to end with that pat answer, did you? Of course not. Here’s the harder, more involved answer. Certainly “style” or “school” is a good shorthand definition of ryu. But upon further reflection, -ryu appended to a martial arts system encompasses much more than just a “style” or way of doing things.

The Flow From the Source

Perhaps when you first joined a martial arts club, you immediately recognized that not all martial arts were alike. Taekwondo people, for example, wore black-edged training outfits and high-kicked a lot compared to Okinawan karatedo people, who wore simpler all-white gi and relied more on short punches and low kicks. And then there were those gung-fu guys in their baggy black pants and t-shirts. Then there was something called aikido, where the black belts wore big baggy trousers and did a lot of wrist locks and throwing, but they were different from those judo guys, who grappled on the mats a lot, who were different from…

You get the picture. There are differences aplenty already in all those modern budo. Now we’re saying that we can speciate classical martial methods of Japan even further?

Yep; that’s the wonder of Asian fighting arts. There are so many variations. You would think that there could be very few ways one can use one’s body or weapons to knock down an enemy, considering that our human physiologies are pretty much the same, but Asian fighting arts were developed to take advantage of subtle variations on basic themes and concepts.

It is this subtlety in application of form that is the hallmark of the ryu and ryuha, but we run ahead of ourselves. First off, the term -ryu in Japanese comes from the Chinese character pronounced (in Japanese) ryu (or nagare, in an alternative reading). It means “to flow, flowing… system or school,” according to my kanji character dictionary. In Japan, when -ryu is appended to a word as part of a school of art or martial arts, it signifies the particular system or style of the art.

Thus, we have Shito-ryu karate, or the Shito “system” of karate, the Kashima Shinto-ryu, or “school” centered on the Shinto shrine of Kashima, the Sogetsu-ryu, or Sogetsu system of flower arrangement, and so on.

In many traditional Japanese arts that were started in what we can crudely correlate to being a medieval era, the founder of the style experienced what amounted to a divine revelation. These experts had already developed a vast repertoire of technical knowledge through a study of martial methods and through actual experience in battle and/or in training. But having exhausted and reached the limits of their technical expertise, they consciously underwent shugyo, or a rigorous training that tested their mind, body and spirit.

Often enacted in the confines of sacred ground such as a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple, or in a hidden religious refuge in the wilderness or mountaintop, shugyo was meant to crack through the surface layer of the physical world to lay bare the secrets of the spiritual universe. Like the intensity of Zen training, after exhausting the everyday avenues of awareness, the trainee undergoing martial arts shugyo attains a new and enlightening insight.

After this period of intense training, prayer, and some kind of fasting and/or abstention, a vision would appear to the founder, that would give him the key to true mastery of his art. Often just a simple phrase or very rudimentary technique(s), the revelation would be the key that unlocked all the subsequent methods that the founder would develop. As such, the revelation was tenshin shoden, or knowledge bestowed from the Heavens, or muso; knowledge gained from a heavenly dream.

The knowledge, therefore, was heavenly pure when it was first passed from the gods to the first generation. If it is to remain a divinely inspired system, then it must always flow back to this person, the founder. Hence, the term -ryu, or nagare; it is a flow back to the wellsprings of the style, which was divine inspiration.

There is a difference in conceptualization here, one which we moderns must understand. Much of modern intellectual thought posits that we are moving forward, towards an ever better, ever more wonderful future, unless we are existentialists, nihilists, or simply depressed. As a society, we may not necessarily believe in the upcoming glorious day of Christian judgement, but we do tend to think that knowledge and history is linear. To many traditional Asian cultures, time may not necessarily be linear. It may be a repeating circle or a spiral of a sorts, in which the centuries repeat certain themes endlessly, just like how the monsoon seasons bring the rains each year to the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. Some years the rains are plentiful, other years they are dry, but time seems like a repeating spiral.

This spiral pattern, the Gordian knot of causation if you will, was cut by the Buddha, who ended the repeating chain of reincarnation by his enlightenment. Since his time, however, Buddhist philosophy held that we entered into an age called mappo, or an era when the wisdom of the ancients would decay. So the future, therefore, is not necessarily better than the past. In mappo, recent innovations cannot be better than the original teachings. Everything after the Buddha is slightly less than the Buddha.

To the Japanese, and to a certain extent the Chinese, especially when they were in the midst of a civil war, the world certainly seemed headed for destruction.

–Are you still with me? Well, then, the concept of decay and entropy has a bearing on what is a ryu. You see, unless you can claim that you have a pure flow from the source, the direct transmission (jikiden) of methods and concepts from the founder, who received divine guidance, your martial arts is a degeneration. Thus innovation for the sake of “modernizing” or upgrading a ryu is considered to be a degradation. That is why a ryu strives to maintain its defined characteristics, as postulated by its founder.

This is not to say that classical martial ryu are unchanging, like a museum piece. Using the analogy of a spring-fed stream, if the waters lay still the river stagnates and becomes a cesspool. The river must “flow through time.” Each headmaster, who supposedly receives the direct transmission, has in his/her prerogative to redefine the ryu’s teachings, as long as he remains true to the inherent philosophical and technical underpinnings.

Thus, Shimizu Takaji, one of the greatest exponents of Shinto Muso-ryu jo in the 20th century, was able to develop kihon (basic) techniques in order to better instruct his modern students in the staff art inspired by Muso Gonnosuke’s vision while meditating atop Mount Homan. Shimizu systematized various movements common to many kata and developed a series of basic techniques that were training aids; he did not alter the movements of the kata themselves.

Or, as another example, my own school has in it the concept of kufuu-den. While the Bitchu-den Takeuchi-ryu has a system of kata that stretches back several centuries, I recently discovered that there are other techniques clearly added on by subsequent instructors. The original kata are relatively unchanged, but because of interchanges with other ryu and the revelations discovered in the course of regular training, subsequent masters and upper-level students have devised various kihon to better train the student. This layering of techniques, in my opinion, if done clearly and for good reasons, is a good stimulus to keeping the ryu alive and thriving.

Other classical schools have different classifications of such add-ons; one term is gaiden (“outside” learning, i.e., techniques developed outside of the founder’s vision proper).

You can see how, therefore, a typical classical -ryu is different from a modern -do form. In the case of judo and kendo, formal kata were developed by committees of human beings, whose attempts are in synch with the modernist trend that things can always be improved with time and human ingenuity. Even modern karatedo, while it retains ryu variations, attempted to develop basic standardization with the implementation of the heian (pinan) forms.

Because such kata were developed in a (supposedly) scientific manner, they are always open to tinkering and redefinition. One good example is the iai seiteigata forms, developed as a standard form for iaido in the 1970s. Since I was first taught it, the seiteigata has undergone several changes, all for “the better.”

The rapid innovations in kata would not be possible in classical ryu, since one would be tinkering with divine inspiration, and any changes would therefore have to come not only through technical reasoning but through another divine revelation, or some very deep soul-searching, at the very least. And visits by divinities, of course, have always been rather rare; at least rarer than the more popular alien abduction contacts.

A ryuha is a faction of a faction; i.e., it is a variation of a ryu established by one of its outstanding disciples. The disciple has not completely broken with the teachings of the ryu, but has developed a variation of it that is markedly different from the original line, yet retains the basic characteristics of the ryu. That ryuha then becomes a different lineage than the original line, a tributary, if you will, of the main river. Thus, the Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginatajutsu is the Toda variation of the Buko-ryu*likewise, the Ono-ha Itto-ryu kenjutsu is the Ono variation of the Itto-ryu.

Ryu and Do

Because of the vast differences between relatively recently developed systems, karatedo retains its ryu systems. Thus, while a school like the Shito-ryu may have kusanku kata, it is different from a Shotokan style kusanku, which will be different from a Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu kusanku.

Judo, as a do form (a “modern” type of martial art stressing mind, body and spiritual development over self-defense or combative methods), is just judo, period. You may have a Kodokan style of judo, a Japanese college style, an Olympic style, but because it is so all-encompassing, there are no ryu in judo. Judo is so malleable in techniques, and is so reasonable in its scientific application of contest-oriented grappling methods that it continues to grow and innovate in technical complexity. It is in fact difficult to truly innovate and create something completely “new” under the sun. Most of us martial artists in this day and age simply aren’t capable of such stunning originality.

Ditto kendo. Kendo is even older than judo as a “modern” committee-organized do form, resurrected by moderns to fulfill sportive and philosophical goals. While there may be ryu in kenjutsu, in kendo there is only kendo, and particular teachers’ variations thereof.

Aikido originally began as a consolidation of techniques learned by Ueshiba Morihei from various ryu, but this modern do form has since begun to fissure and split, and can be considered to be factionalized into legitimately different groups, even ryu. But all in all, one can still see a similar strain that links a Tomiki stylist for example, to a Yoshinkan stylist, to an Aikikai stylist; all of which are markedly different from Daito-ryu, for example.

Iaido is an interesting art; the Zen Nihon Seitei Gata are standardized forms that most iaido practitioners adhere to, but it is overlaid on top of the various extant iai ryu.

Ryu Du Jour

Judging from the popularity of fads in mainstream U.S. martial arts, we like to mix ‘n match techniques, thinking that if we jam everything from every system together, we’ll come up with something better than the sum of its parts… To a purist, however, we would too often come up with just a mess of illogical patchwork.

In sports, innovation is good. Olympic judo, for example, is always challenged by influence from other forms of grappling that are incorporated within the framework of the rules and regulations of randori-type contests. Karatedo has benefited (although some might opine that it has suffered as well) from the interchange of methods at open tournaments between markedly different exponents; Korean stylists may learn hand techniques from Okinawan stylists, Japanese stylists may learn kicking techniques from Korean stylists, and so on.

When appropriate, such cross-fertilization is good for the growth of a modern do form. It is usually disastrous, however, when novices with only surface knowledge of techniques attempt to mix and match different methods to create their own “innovative” instantly “classical” style, which usually ends up on the cover of some martial arts magazine and then fades away when the next fad excites the reading audience.

It is a bit more complex when it comes to innovating within a ryu form that is a koryu or classical ancient martial system. Remember that a ryu is a flow from a source. If you innovate too much, you cut off the ryu’s link to its divine origins. You also may alter the style so much that it is unrecognizable as that particular style.

To that end, someone like the late martial arts movie actor, Bruce Lee, was honest enough to realize that his innovations in Wing Chun were vast enough to warrant calling his art something entirely different: Jeet Kune Do. He didn’t hide behind trying to call his altered system Wing Chun, although it appears that he did continue to draw a great a deal of influence from that art. At least he was honest and didn’t try to appear what he wasn’t. This is rather unlike some of our current “innovators” who denigrate classical styles and yet continue to wear all of the trappings of Asian martial arts, including the black belt, gi outfit, and (most especially) the redundancy of orientalish-sounding titles. (Someone sent me a copy of a letter they received from one such “master” who stamped his note with an official-looking chop. The only problem was, the Chinese characters for the seal, which I assume he meant to read something like “great master,” really meant “tree-killing certificate of approval.” Go figure that one out.)

Innovation is necessary in a sport to further it as a sportive endeavor. But a classical martial ryu is not just a sport, it is an art tradition, and to maintain its integrity means maintaining its closeness to its origins. Quaker furniture, for example, can be remade by contemporary craftspeople using power tools and modern machinery, but in my opinion it is not Quaker-style furniture if it is made out of plastic and staples in the latest neon colors and grunge-type fabrics. A classical ryu is not a classical ryu if innovation makes it totally unrecognizable.

Those with a more practical bent may grouse that maintaining classical forms are irrelevant in this day and age. They argue that learning grappling skills in full armor with a classical warrior’s complement of light weapons don’t make sense in this day and age, and their way is better. This usually means they are teaching a “street wise” mix of unrelated techniques, perhaps using modern accoutrements such as bicycle chains, fighting knives, and so on.

Not only is this distasteful, in my own elitist opinion, but such badly thought out logic attacks the very reason the ryu survived for so long. Because it had become theoretized and extracted from “practical” contemporary situations, it never grows old. A classical ryu is timeless, not timely.

In a couple of decades, the modern innovator’s barroom brawl kata may make no sense because barrooms may be replaced by virtual reality Internet bars. Tree-killing heap big sensei-kahuna’s argument of “relevance” means he must continually change whenever the times change, thereby falling into a trap of forever keeping up with the latest trend or martial arts fad of the month.

But ryu hardly change, flowing as they do not from the present, but from the past, through the present, and into the future, no matter what the future may hold.

That, in a time when fleeting fame is measured in minutes, if not seconds, is a reassuring thought.

The river flows on, but something remains from the past, leading us through the present, and into the future, if we but step into the clear waters for a drink.

* Editor’s note: you’d think that this was the case, but actually we are the Buko-ha of the Toda-ryu. In the early 19th century, Suneya Ryosuke, 12th headmaster of the ryu, changed the name to Toda Buko-ryu or Toda-ha Buko-ryu (both were used). No one is certain of the whys and wherefores, but this is typical of the quirks you run into when dealing with specific koryu. [back]

Copyright ©1997 Wayne Muromoto. All rights reserved.